“What America does better than any other nation is to spark the creativity and imagination of its people,” Obama told us. “The U.S. is the nation that put cars in the world's driveways and computers on the world's desks; it's the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers and Google and Facebook.”
And let's not overlook innovation in healthcare. From biotech therapeutics and breakthroughs in heart repair and kidney transplantation to lifesaving devices and vaccines, the industry has much to be proud of. It represents a cutting edge that needs to be nurtured continuously—requiring investment both public and private. But it's money well spent.
At the same time, there is one seemingly intractable problem in healthcare that, for the most part, can be addressed with a low-tech, low-cost solution requiring little innovation. The malady? Hospital-acquired infections. The treatment? Soap and water.
Just a few weeks ago, yet another authoritative study came to the same conclusion that researchers have been pounding home for decades: If only caregivers would wash their hands more frequently, we could start winning the battle against hospital-borne infections.
The latest study, published in the Jan. 14 issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine, studied the prevalence of methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus in an urban hospital emergency department during a 12-month period. Through extensive screening, it was determined that about 5% of patients there tested positive for MRSA.
Once again, good hand hygiene was cited as a simple, effective way to reduce the spread of MRSA in a crowded, high-acuity setting like an urban ER.
“MRSA is transmitted by touch, making clean hands essential to stopping the spread of this potentially deadly organism,” said Dr. Kalpana Gupta, chief of infectious diseases at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, who helped conduct the study. “It would be very costly to make testing of all emergency patients for MRSA standard practice, but very inexpensive to institute enhanced hand-washing precautions.”
The publication of that study reminded me of some other information I encountered the previous week when I was helping my fifth-grader son with his social studies homework. His assignment involved preparing for a role-playing exercise as part of his class' study of ancient Egypt. Each student was to play a different character set during the time of the pharaohs, such as farmer, artisan or merchant. My son was given the role of ancient Egyptian physician and was tasked with learning some facts about the practice of medicine in those times.
What the Egyptians knew was actually quite incredible. OK, part of the “modern” healthcare of the time—dating back to around 3000 B.C.—included magic spells, potions and incantations. But they also knew that certain substances had antibacterial properties and that clean hands are good preventive medicine.
So yes, we've known for many millennia that hand-washing is one of those best practices for a healthy population. Such a simple thing can stop disease dead in its tracks. Nevertheless, infections continue to flourish in our healthcare settings and we continue to witness easily preventable deaths.
The next time caregivers don their colorful scrubs, maybe more of them will remember what the word really means.